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Analysis of Poem "The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner" by Randall Jarrell

Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

Randall Jarrell

Randall Jarrell

Randall Jarrell and a Summary of The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner

Randall Jarrell's poem The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner can be found in many anthologies and is his most well-known work. Published in 1945, it drew directly from his own involvement with military aircraft and airmen during WW2.

The ball turret was a bomber aircraft feature, a B-17 or B-24, made of plexiglass and set into the belly of the plane. From this sphere, a gunner, upside down, could track the enemy, revolving as he let fly with his machine guns.

The poem, written in first person, gives the deceased turret gunner a 'live' voice. It is a moving yet disturbing single stanza that delivers plenty of food for thought.

When the war ended, Jarrell published two books of poetry full of his war-time experiences, Little Friend, Little Friend (1945) and Losses (1948). He continued in his academic roles as both teacher and reviewer of poetry, producing essays and critiques still held in high esteem. His book Poetry and the Age (1953) is considered a classic.

Randall Jarrell, outspoken critic, novelist, poet and cat lover with a sharp mind and keen insight, published his last book in 1965, The Lost World, the year in which he died.

It contains some notable poems, amongst them one titled Next Day, all about a middle-aged woman who, one day whilst out shopping, realizes that she has grown old. It's written in the first person, just as The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner is.

The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner

From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.

Analysis of The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner

This is a poem in which the speaker summarises events post-mortem; it could well be a spirit still caught up in the confusion of war yet expressing a calm if eerie need to be concise and true.

The reader is taken through the states of a timeless existence. Birth becomes death (and vice versa?), and the paradox of self - outward, inner, that which precedes everything - is all but wrapped up in five lines.

You can picture the gunner inside that bubble, which is a womb in effect, taking off into the air, thinking of his mother back home, sweating, trapped inside, vulnerable, like a child, about to face the enemy.

Here we have a soldier, part of the machinery of the State, bent forward in readiness to fire a lethal weapon; a sacrificial lamb to the slaughter, engaged in violence yet helplessly captive, as if in a dream.

To fall from my mother's sleep - does this suggest a kind of embryonic puppet - strings cut, awkwardly positioned like an animal, taken up into the rarified atmosphere above earth, where all of a sudden a rude awakening takes place and the 'animal' (unconscious) that was becomes a human being again, facing a grim reality.

As the bomber plane approaches its target, the now conscious gunner has to deal with the flak (anti-aircraft fire) coming up from the ground and the smaller fighter planes sent out to confront and destroy.

Lines four and five are all about the horrible process of war; nightmares end in a dream-like experience.

The end line, in particular, is shocking in its imagery and is based on actual practice. A steam hose was used to clean out the ball turret following a death. Here the hose could be a symbol of the umbilical cord joining mother and foetus, or the whole idea could be suggestive of abortion or still life birth, of a human life gone wrong.

With the plane clean and ready for the next crew, the war could continue its cold, cruel progress.

Analysis of The Death of The Ball Turret Gunner: Poetic Devices, Rhyme, Meter

With only one example of full end rhyme, froze/hose, and inconsistent meter, this unconventional five-line poem relies on simple language, paradox and a disembodied first-person voice to make it successful.

There is alliteration when two words close together to start with the same consonant - my mother's/ fur froze - and some loose internal rhymes - fell/belly; black flak; nightmare fighters - and a kind of pleasing rhythmic music in the second line.

The first-person perspective gives this poem a direct route into the reader's mind. This is the voice of the gunner, more than likely to be a young man, summing up his experience of war in simple past tense.

Note the use of the verbs in four out of five lines:

I fell....I hunched....I woke....I died. We have a whole life here expressed in a strange, paradoxical way, as if the individual concerned was merely part of some impersonal process, a mother's son born to be a victim.


The Hand of the Poet, Rizzoli, 1997

Norton Anthology, Norton, 2005

© 2017 Andrew Spacey